New Study Finds Eastern North American Trees are Moving West in Response to the Effects of Climate Change

Climate change is expected to affect different species in various ways. Scientists expect that animals and plants that are able will shift poleward as the climate heats up. But a new study of eastern North American trees published this week in Science Advances found a slightly unexpected result: trees are moving westward even more than they are moving poleward. The study found that about three-quarters (73%) of tree species common to eastern American forests have shifted their population west since 1980. During the same period 62% of the species studied also moved northward.

The study, one of the first to use empirical data and not models or predictions, analyzed the abundance of 86 tree species/groups across the eastern United States over the last three decades. Scientists found that more deciduous trees (angiosperms-trees that have seeds that are enclosed within fruits) have shifted westward, while conifers (gymnosperms -which have no flowers or fruits and are often configured as cones) have tended to shift poleward. The westward trend was stronger for saplings than adult trees.

The results indicate that changes in changes in precipitation (e.g. drought) may impact vegetation dynamics more than changes in temperature in the near-term. It concluded that if these shifts continue, with the deciduous trees moving westward and conifers moving northward, it will change the composition of forest ecosystems. These changes can have significant ecological consequences including the possibility of extinction of certain evolutionary lineages in some forest communities. They recommend that forest managers consider both temperature and precipitation when making management decisions.

Read the story by visiting The Atlantic.

Read the study in Science Advances.